Guest Post: Darkness and Light

“Out of the Darkness, in collaboration with Together for Mental Wellbeing, challenges some of the most exciting voices in horror and dark fantasy to bring their worst fears out into the light. From the black dog of depression to acute anxiety and schizophrenia, these stories prove what fans of horror fiction have long known – that we must understand our demons to overcome them.”

“Horror isn’t just about the chills – it’s also about the healing that comes after.”

Dan Coxon, editor at Unsung Stories, contacted me about a new short story anthology the press will publish later this year. A quick glance at the list of contributors and I was immediately interested. The theme that draws the stories together is mental health, which feels particularly appropriate given the way people have been required to live during the global pandemic. I asked Dan if he could provide a guest post explaining how the book came into being. Funds for the print run are being raised via a Kickstarter campaign that has some impressive rewards for those who pledge their support. All royalties and fees from this collection are being donated to the mental health charity Together for Mental Wellbeing. Over to Dan.

Out of the Darkness is an anthology of short stories about mental health, but with a twist. The authors we’ve invited are all in some way writers of horror, dark fantasy and the uncanny – strange stories, sometimes scary ones. Our aim wasn’t just to publish a book – we also wanted to start a conversation within the genre fiction community, and help those suffering from mental illness to find support and understanding.

I first started work on Out of the Darkness in the winter of 2019/2020. Covid-19 was still unheard of, and the idea of a global pandemic was something for the thriller writers. But before any of this happened – before the cracks in our world were exposed – we were already facing a mental health crisis. According to a study in 2019, it was estimated that one in four people in the UK would experience mental health issues every year, ranging from schizophrenia to mild depression. On a global scale, that figure rose to 792 million. Over 70 per cent of people suffering from mental health problems would receive no treatment at all.

You don’t need me to tell you that things have only got worse since the coronavirus pandemic. The Centre for Mental Health has estimated that 10 million people will need mental health support in the UK as a direct consequence of Covid-19. We’ve all been struggling to one degree or another, whether it’s due to isolation, anxiety, job-related stress or bereavement. 2020 was a year of widespread suffering, and suddenly my little anthology felt more important than ever.

Some of the stories in Out of the Darkness were written before Covid-19 hit; some during the pandemic. What binds them all together is more than just the topic of mental health, though. It felt particularly important that they should engage with the topic in a productive and positive way, rather than dwelling on negatives. The aim was to encourage conversations and help those suffering from mental health issues, not send them spiralling into even deeper despair. None of the authors involved have sugar-coated their stories, but they do suggest a light at the end of the tunnel, a way of coping with and living with mental illness, rather than succumbing to it. Together we’re moving out of the darkness.

Having said that, the authors involved vary widely in their backgrounds. Some – Simon Bestwick, Eugen Bacon – are best known for their horror and science fiction. Others, such as Gary Budden and Aliya Whiteley, are better known for writing weird fiction – fiction that unsettles and challenges the reader. We even have two Booker Prize longlisted or shortlisted authors, in Alison Moore and Sam Thompson. What brings them all together is their interest in the strange and the unusual, and their willingness to explore different mental states through their writing.

Out of the Darkness is available for pre-order now via our Kickstarter campaign, which, in addition to the regular paperback and ebook editions, includes an exclusive, limited and hand-numbered hardback edition. More importantly, we’re supporting the charity Together for Mental Wellbeing with the book – all the author’s royalties and my own fees as editor are being donated to the charity. Backing us on Kickstarter doesn’t just get you a fabulous book – it also puts some money where it’s most needed. Because if we all pull together, we can find the light at the end of the tunnel.

Dan Coxon

Do please consider supporting the Kickstarter – details here

Updates may be found on Dan’s Twitter

 

Book Review: Trauma

“The older one gets, the more we’re inclined to try to make sense of where we are and how we got here. Looking back we see these lightning traces, these impossible threads that weave our lives together and give them meaning.”

Trauma is an anthology of thirty-two essays from an impressive roster of contemporary writers who publish in the English language. They share their thoughts on a diverse array of mental health issues caused by, to name just a few examples included: physical, sexual and emotional abuse; drug, alcohol and pornography addiction; illness, including depression; sleep deprivation. The essays are deeply personal and skilfully written. They deal with hard-hitting subjects that demand time for reflection. The traumas suffered have been life-changing in myriad ways.

Jenn Ashworth writes in the introduction that she read the essays during the first lockdown of 2020. She suggests:

“It is hard to imagine a more appropriate time for an anthology like this, when even those of us cushioned from illness, bereavement and financial disaster are learning the hard lessons of impermanence and dependence. Of having the truth of our precarity revealed to us suddenly, harshly and relentlessly.”

The wide variety of subjects explored adds strength to a book that could have been dispiriting but somehow comes across as affirming. The authors live daily with the impact of various mental health issues – theirs or a loved one’s – but write of how they have found ways to recognise the damage caused and – mostly, somehow – push through. There are few treatments or cures suggested. Rather, the stories shared are an acknowledgement of how widespread and lingering trauma is. Brushing it under the carpet – a conspiracy of silence that has long been pervasive – results in longer term misery, sometimes across generations.

With so many fine essays included, I will only highlight those few that resonated particularly with me. All in the anthology are worth reading.

James Miller’s The Madness of the Real focuses on the relentlessness of the news cycle and the ubiquity of smartphone connectivity. He starts with social media – particularly as used by Donald Trump – and its assault on:

“truth, decency, tolerance and democratic values. The world’s biggest troll playing the world’s biggest victim, gaslighting supporters and enemies alike.”

Miller writes succinctly of a world on fire, fuelled by toxic leadership. The anger this engenders alongside the impotence many feel at the vastness of damage wreaked eats into our ability to trust the society in which we must live. He suggests that, in such times, literature can reflect back concerns and offer:

“inspiration, strength and solidarity. Old tools to build new weapons, elixirs to cultivate forbidden dreams.”

Where Miller writes plainly, Anna Vaught employs language richly flavoured in her essay, In Order to Live. A childhood characterised by emotional abuse led her to seek sanctuary in books – an escape ‘to new words and worlds.’ Having battled through years of mental health problems caused by toxic parenting, Vaught then suffered two nervous breakdowns while a young mother herself. She unpicked the origins of her illness by writing her autobiography – a cathartic process that enabled her to confront her family’s psychiatric history. She writes that she still reads at a furious pace, ‘in order to live’.

In Madness As Such, Neil Griffiths provides fragments written during a period shadowed by severe and extended episodes of depression. Although not always easy to read, this peals back the veneer of coping to expose a window into his mind at the time. It is raw and visceral.

“Overwhelm. I’m suffering ‘overwhelm’. (There is no more space left in this emptiness)”

In Quite Collected… Meanwhile… Rowena MacDonald employs a narrative presented in two columns to highlight how inner thoughts are masked to the extent that the bearer appears to be holding together despite help being needed. She escapes to private or anonymous spaces rather than risk being seen to break.

Naomi Frisby describes the damage caused by a toxic relationship in A Recipe for Madness. Believing her new partner to be the man of her dreams, she surrenders job and friends to be with him. On attaining control, he then changes tack, manipulating to ensure Frisby blames herself. In the aftermath, she feels humiliated that she was taken in, not recognising his narcissism.

“I prided myself on being independent, educated, strong, but my response to J pushing me away was to cling harder, to give more and more of myself to him. By doing everything I could think of to try and stop J abandoning me, I abandoned myself.
Finding myself again takes time. I have to learn who I’ve become and why.”

The Fish Bowl or, Some Notes on Everyday Sexual Trauma, by Monique Roffey, lays bare the pervasiveness of sexual abuse amongst adolescents and beyond, so much so that any fuss made is discouraged, damage internalised.

Although focusing on her own experiences, the point is made that men suffer too:

“of always being measured against alpha males, of not being able to reach out to other men, of having few male friends, of lonely marriages and of erectile dysfunction, and of wives and partners who didn’t know what they wanted in bed and didn’t seem to want sex from them”

Tamin Sadikali writes of addiction to pornography – how he grew to loath himself but, for many years, couldn’t look away. Azad Ashim Sharma writes of addiction to alcohol and cocaine. After a year of clean sobriety, he then chose to return to his old ways. These essays are eye-opening. The authors understand how their habits will be regarded but also that they are more common than many may think.

“Waste water analysis shows that 1/50 people use [cocaine] every day in London.
In May 2019, Kings College London and the University of Suffolk collaborated and found that 100 per cent of freshwater shrimp tested positive for traces of cocaine.”

There is no advocacy for greater acceptability but rather acknowledgement of self-inflicted damage and the difficulties caused by a culture of denial and condemnation.

In The Art of Lost Sleep, Venetia Welby writes of the problem of severe insomnia, a problem she has battled since her teenage years.

“people who’ve had a bad night or two, experienced jet lag or stayed up all night partying think the deleterious effects they feel must be the same, just scaled down. But the complete unravelling of body and soul and the identity crisis that real insomnia entails exists in a different dimension.”

As with many of these essays, this is a request for recognition of a serious problem that is too often belittled.

Throughout the anthology the writers present fearlessly articulate descriptions of the causes and effects of their mental health issues. These provide educative yet always engaging insight into widespread problems that deserve sympathetic treatment. It is a candid and illuminating read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dodo Ink.

Book Review: The Fragments of my Father

“Being a carer can sometimes mean that you end up being an emotional punchbag. You have to remind yourself that it’s often your loved one’s illness speaking, not them.”

In the summer of 2010, Sam Mills’ mother, Glesney, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in her kidney. Sam’s father, Edward, had suffered from schizophrenia since she was a young child and Glesney had dedicated her married life to caring for him. Now she would need help. Their daughter agreed to move back to the family home in London, from a village outside Manchester where she had felt happily settled, to become her parents’ carer. Her two brothers had full time jobs whereas Sam’s work was mostly freelance. Nevertheless, she was unaware at the time the toll this role would take on her life and health.

The Fragments of my Father is a memoir chronicling the costs of caring for loved ones. Alongside her own experiences, Sam writes of other authors who were carers for many years – Leonard Woolf and Scott Fitzgerald. The former she regards in a positive light, unlike the latter. Although shocking at times, the details of these men’s treatment of their wives are explored with the caveat that carers are human whose own desires risk being subsumed by the needs of their mentally ill relative.

Edward suffers episodes of catatonia that result in him being sectioned and placed in care homes for the mentally unstable. His anti-psychotic medication is designed to prevent this – to provide scaffolding – but leaves him a shadow of the man he could otherwise have been.

 “It seemed such a waste, his life. If only he had been born in a different era, when his voice might have been accepted rather than labelled a sickness he had to fight. The medications he’d taken were not cures, just compromises, putting him in purgatory, half-awake, half-alive.”

Of course, this is not the whole story. When his drugs didn’t work Edward would become agitated and upset by the voices in his head. Unable to repress his emotions, he would express them in ways deemed unacceptable. Society couldn’t cope with his erratic behaviour – such as his choice to wander naked. Medication made him acceptable.

“his symptoms subdued into a sad, quiet existence”

Sam writes of her childhood – of her father’s absences and the impact his inability to hold down a job had on his family. She was a teenager before she understood his behaviour was a named illness – it took years to reach acceptance and look into what schizophrenia meant. When caring for him, she tried to work out what could have caused his mental breakdown. She muses on the balance between madness and the inspiration of artistic creatives.

Glesney married Edward with expectations of a fulfilling life that were repeatedly stymied. Sam reflects on what her mother lost, and on how she herself will cope with the ongoing situation and the pressures it brings. Caring demands more than action. It brings with it an emotional burden. Difficult decisions must be made for patient and carer.

I read this book as someone who chose the more selfish route. When my increasingly frail parents required hands-on support in their old age, I refused to leave my husband and children to move country – as requested by my sister – and share with her the burden of caring for them. As a result, she shouldered this alone for close to a decade until their deaths last year. The fraught and at times angry updates she would give me came to mind as I followed the experiences the author reflects on – her mental and physical exhaustion and need for breaks she couldn’t take.

Sam was unsure about writing this memoir but was encouraged by a friend to do so.

“I was worried being a carer might be seen as a boring topic to explore. Unglamorous. I said that perhaps I ought to choose a sexier subject. He replied that this was exactly why I ought to write it, because there are numerous books out there about doctors and high-flying surgeons and so few about those for whom caring is an unpaid, everyday duty. There are currently 6.5 million carers in the UK, which means that 1 in 8 of us are carers; the number is set to rise”

What comes to the fore in these reflections is the difficulty of providing for those in need when society has little interest in illness – regarding it as something to be managed stoically, or institutionalised. Family carers find their lives and choices revolving around the needs of their loved ones, their own requirements and ambitions slotted into whatever crevices they can carve out in terms of time and energy. There is love but also a strong sense of duty – ties that bind.

The book is structured in a fragmented timeline, jumping between: Sam’s life, the years spent caring for her mother, the effects of her father’s illness, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The language employed is direct, with just the occasional use of words I had to look up: inanition, quiddity. These help emphasise the author’s obvious intelligence, something carers must worry they lose recognition for when they take on a role that is largely undervalued.

This is a story that packs a punch and will resonate with all who have loved ones in need of care, or who face the prospect of need themselves. Sam does not hold herself up for admiration but rather presents this memoir as a cry for better support for all those who, like her, suffer emotionally and financially in order to keep loved ones well. It is also a reminder that mental health issues deserve more empathy and attention.

“psychiatry should not ask the question ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ‘What happened to you?’

A poignant and timely read from a skilled writer. Recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 4th Estate, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

Monthly Roundup – July 2020

July has had its highs and lows. The early part of the month brought with it some welcome client work, thereby adding a structure to our weeks that has been missed. Work is still entirely from home, for the time being, but is a step in the right direction.

Elder son changed jobs, moving to a trainee position in his profession of choice, a year after graduating. In the interim he has worked in a local factory and then a supermarket – real life experience that will, I hope, result in greater appreciation of how privileged he is in so many ways. Daughter passed her end of year exams and has now returned to London to complete her final year at medical school. Our little household will remain at four as younger son’s university informed him learning will be online until at least January. His expensive student accommodation lies empty but must still be paid for.

It had begun to feel that we were moving forward after the stasis of the lockdown months. We watched as shops, pubs and restaurants started to reopen, albeit with restrictions. A lovely hairdresser visited our home, cutting my and daughter’s hair while wearing rather offputting PPE. News that gyms and swimming pools were to grant access to their facilities was welcomed.

And then came the announcement that mask wearing was to be made mandatory in shops as well as on public transport. The polarisation of opinion this created caused a massive spike in my stress levels that has still to abate. I wrote about my reaction in a personal post: Mask wearing and other plague related issues. I will now be avoiding enclosed public spaces for the foreseeable future: On not wearing a face mask.

I continue to try to manage my anxiety with exercise – long walks and bike rides in the still beautiful countryside, plus regular runs that push me to my physical limits. I miss the strength training gym membership offered and await news on restrictions these establishments will be forced to work to. Elder son returned to training on opening day and I may join his town centre gym. The little local facility I have been a member of for years cannot yet know when it will be permitted to open fully and freely.

I hurt for the small businesses that will not survive mandated restrictions, the employees facing redundancy and the stress this brings. It feels to me at times that a section of society is so concerned with not dying that they have forgotten how to live. Risk exists in many chosen activities.

In amongst all else that has been happening, I still turn to my books. Reading cannot offer the relaxation and escapism I crave in these times of uncertainty – I struggle to concentrate for long periods – but I still gain pleasure from appreciation of fine writing.

I reviewed 9 titles in July: 7 fiction (1 translated) and 2 non fiction. In addition, Robyn contributed 9 reviews.

You may click on the title below to read the review, and on the cover to find out more about each book.

 

Fiction

 
Patience by Toby Litt, published by Galley Beggar Press
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce, published by Doubleday

 
The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams, published by William Heinemann
The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath, published by Headline Accent

 
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, published by Picador
The Blackbird by Claire Allen, published by Henningham Family Press

I am running a Twitter giveaway of The Blackbird that will close at 5pm on 31/7/2020. Do consider entering for the chance to win a copy of this truly beautifully bound and illustrated book – it is well worth reading.

 

Translated Fiction


A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti (translated by Fionn Petch), published by Charco Press

 

Non fiction

 
Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker, published by Quercus
Not Far From The Junction by Will Ashon, published by Open Pen

 

Robyn Reviews

 
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, published by Jo Fletcher Books
Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, published by Hodder & Stoughton

 
The Story of Silence by Alex Myers, published by Harper Voyager
The Extraordinaries by TJ Klune, published by Hodder & Stoughton

 
The Court of Miracles by Kester Grant, published by Harper Collins
The Sin Eater by Megan Campisi, published by Mantle

 
Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, published by Margaret K. McElderry Books
The Year of Witching by Alexis Henderson, published by Bantam Press


Circe by Madeline Miller, published by Bloomsbury

 

Sourcing the books

Robyn is on Netgalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She received her first physical ARC this month as well as making a couple of hefty purchases.

     I

I took delivery of some intriguing sounding books, many of which I couldn’t help but read immediately.

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health, speedy recovery from any illness, and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

Book Review: Hidden Valley Road

Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker, tells the true story of the Galvin family and their lives growing up in post war America. It was written in collaboration with all living family members, along with many of their friends, relatives, and the medical professionals who tried to help them. Of the twelve Galvin children, six were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The family became an important case study in the genetics of mental health.

The author is a journalist who agreed to tell this story if it could be fully fact checked. He makes clear his sources and looks at key incidents from various perspectives. The style and structure adopted enables the reader to observe each Galvin as an individual with personal feelings and grievances. Their problems are real and often horrifying but the details are never sensationalised.

There are discussions around nature vs nurture, and of the wisdom of having so many children. Each of the Galvins had to cope with trauma that, from the outside, appears unimaginably harrowing. That they wanted to share their experiences, and also contribute to medical research, demonstrates their wish to help others avoid the pain they suffered – and still struggle with.

Alongside the family story are chapters on the treatment of mental health issues, particularly schizophrenia, throughout and beyond the twentieth century. These are written to be accessible and provide a picture of changing attitudes and the focus of research. What comes through is the way medical experts in the field of neuroscience can be quick to blame parents for their children’s afflictions – be it in how they were raised or the problems passed on in genes.

Don Galvin and Mimi Blayney first met at a swim competition as they were entering their teenage years. He was handsome, serious minded and personable. She came from troubled wealth, appreciating high artistic endeavours and harbouring a need to impress. They married when Don was called up to fight in the Second World War, by which time Mimi was already pregnant.

The couple went on to have their twelve children over the course of twenty years – ten boys followed by two girls. Don’s work often took him away from home. He regularly mixed with the rich and famous. Mimi was left to care for the house and children, tasks she undertook with fierce determination. It mattered to her how the family were regarded – moreso than how they behaved privately. Home never felt a safe space for any of the young offspring.

The synopsis ensured that I opened the book ready to sympathise with the parents. This was almost immediately brought into question. Don and Mimi captured and trained wild birds of prey. Their methods suggested they had little empathy with the suffering of living creatures, focusing more on what Don and Mimi would gain. Likewise, their children were allowed to fight viciously and bully each other with impunity. So long as they did their chores, publicly achieved, and turned up for mass on a Sunday in their smart clothes, Mimi felt she was mothering well. Don encouraged her to leave the children to sort out grievances between themselves. This resulted in numerous injuries – many serious – and a culture of fear that manifested in hatred, and a determination to get away.

When, as young men, the sons started to fall ill, Mimi undertook what care she could offer when they were not hospitalised. She focused on her sick boys, resulting in her well children feeling overlooked. Any complaints were met with an impatient reminder that the others had it worse.

The two girls contribute many details that shine a light on the horror of their existence – including abuse. All of the children appeared to idolise Don while blaming Mimi for not doing enough for them as individuals. They question why she chose to have so many children. In an interview, near the end of her life, Mimi states that she considered herself a good mother – not a view apparently shared by those on the receiving end of her mothering. When their mental illnesses could no longer be kept hidden, Mimi stated that she felt embarrassed by her children.

Details provided of the young Galvins’ habits suggest there was a great deal of drug taking. In amongst the many details of medical research and treatments, the potential impact of this is not mentioned, and would have been of interest.

An aside I found saddening, if not surprising, was the focus of pharmaceutical companies on making money over finding a cure. Several paths of promising research were abandoned when it became clear they could not be quickly monetised.

The Galvins were not wealthy but seem to have managed financially. The benefits system in America is portrayed as more generous than was my understanding. There are brief mentions of wider family and I pondered if any practical help came from them. Mostly it is wealthy friends who are cited as benefactors, although the children still had issues with the fine opportunities this offered them. They wanted their parents to behave differently – to focus more on them.

And it is this honesty – the desire even grown children retain for parental attention and appreciation – that is a strength of the story. Each of the children needed their needs to be noticed.

The horrors inflicted run alongside details of sporting and artistic achievements that were supported by the Galvins as a family, even when siblings expressed little interest. What is most remembered looking back, though, is the impact of living with schizophrenics. Whether the illness to come caused the early and ongoing violence is not delved into in detail.

A cure for schizophrenia has yet to be found, and the next generation of Galvins has not survived unscathed. The denouement gives cause for hope if not full closure of the issues investigated.

This is a fascinating if disturbing account of large family dynamics and the impact on all of mental illness. The resentments of the well siblings as the family aged resonated.

“From her family, Lindsay could see how we all have an amazing ability to shape our own reality, regardless of the facts. We can live our entire lives in a bubble and be quite comfortable. And there can be other realities that we refuse to acknowledge, but are every bit as real as our own. She was not thinking of her sick brothers now, but of everyone – all of them, including her mother, including herself.”

An illuminating story that disturbs as much as it engages and informs the reader. A window into living with and alongside compromised mental health – the cost to all involved, not just the patient.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Quercus.

Book Review: Saving Lucia

“Don’t let me be remembered only as a madwoman, as a case.”

Saving Lucia, by Anna Vaught, is a fictionalised retelling of the lives of four women who, in their lifetimes, were regarded as mentally impaired. They were incarcerated and given treatments thought fitting at the time, often by renowned pioneers whose names readers may recognise. In looking at the women’s lives and the people they met and mixed with, the question is posited: how are they deemed mad and others sane?

The Lucia of the title is the daughter of James Joyce, the Irish writer best known for his wordy and challenging novels. Born in 1907, she was diagnosed as schizophrenic in the mid-1930s and institutionalized at the Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Zurich. In 1951, she was transferred to St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton. She died there in 1982.

“St Andrew’s is quite a select place if you have the money, because you get a well-appointed room of your own to be mad in.”

During Lucia’s first few years at St Andrew’s – according to this tale – she befriends another inmate, the Honourable Violet Gibson. In 1926, Violet shot Mussolini as he walked amongst a crowd in Rome. She wishes her story to be told and asks Lucia to be her scribe. As they share their stories, those of two other women also rise.

Marie ‘Blanche’ Wittman was a prominent patient of esteemed neurologist, Professor Jean-Martin Charcot. He would exhibit her in his clinical lessons at La Salpêtrière in Paris. Under hypnosis, this beautiful woman would be presented as a model example of hysteria. One such lesson was captured in a painting by André Brouillet. Charcot was a showman, Blanche his commodity. Under the guise of teaching he offered her up for men to ogle – a curiosity without agency.

“Neurology: such detail – and he swam in its glory and down its pathways; he thought hysteria had a logic of the body.
Hmmm.
I don’t recall that he studied it in men”

The fourth woman in this imagined friendship group (who lived in different times and places) is Anna O. She was a patient of Josef Breuer who published her case study in his book Studies on Hysteria, written in collaboration with Sigmund Freud. Her treatment is regarded as marking the beginning of psychoanalysis. Her real name was Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian Jew and the founder of the League of Jewish Women.

What these four women have in common, as well as their purported mental conditions, is the power others had over them and how this was was misused.

“women of her time could find no outlet in ‘a cold and oppressive conventional atmosphere’ to satisfy their passion and intellect. They were not supposed to have ‘any occupation of sufficient importance not to be interrupted'”

The book’s brilliantly written opening chapter pulls the reader in. From there the narrator’s voice is established – a somewhat frantic and illusory remembrance of various events from each of the character’s histories. Gradually the reasons for their incarcerations are revealed along with the direction their lives subsequently took. In giving them a voice, the author also asks what they would have done instead if given the choice.

Lucia Joyce’s letters, papers and medical records were destroyed at the behest of her surviving family – an attempt to expunge her existence. Violet Gibson was moved to a shared ward when her family wished to save themselves money towards the end of her life. Marie Wittman was taken on by Marie Curie as an assistant to work in the Paris laboratory where, in 1898, radium was discovered – she suffered debilitating health issues as a result of this work. Bertha Pappenheim recovered over time and led a productive life – the West German government issued a postage stamp in honour of her contributions to the field of social work.

These stories of vital, intelligent women whose lasting history is remembered largely through what they were to famous men make for fascinating reading. Mental health is still widely regarded as an embarrassing condition best kept hidden away – the author has given voice to those who, for fear of consequences, were forced to submit silently and kept in captivity. Readers are reminded that captivity does not always require rooms and keys.

There is much to consider in this poignant and impressive story. Although certain threads are not always the easiest to follow due to the fragmented structure, it is worth pursuing for all that comes together at the end. This leaves a powerful and lasting impression as well as a new lens to look through at some of the supposed titans of science. A layered, affecting and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bluemoose Books.

There now follows a short intermission

I am taking a hiatus from writing. Not for long, just enough to recharge my batteries. This year has felt full on with books, events and family commitments. My capacity to cope is jittering so I am taking a short time out in an attempt to ground myself.

My children were all home for an extended Easter holiday which was a delight. I also determined to take more walks, more swims, and to return the the gym. These activities felt right for me but were demanding of time. My reviewing rate took the hit.

A number of friends and associates, some longstanding, cut ties with me for reasons they did not explain. Social media is a boon for keeping in touch when face to face socialising is regarded as a challenge; it can be damaging when armed as rejection.

No matter how often I remind myself that other’s reactions and opinions shouldn’t matter, they have an impact.

These are the books on my TBR pile being published in May. I am eager to read them all and will endeavour to post my reviews around publication. Books remain my solace and I am working on not feeling pressurised by self-imposed commitments and deadlines.

All being well I will continue with my walks, swims and the gym. I also have trips away planned with family – there is much to look forward to. Perhaps I will write about some of these activities. Writing is my way of processing the turbulence of life although I do not always publish such musings.

I want in this post to thank the generous community of writers, especially book bloggers, who share my posts on social media. I rarely thank you personally but please know that your support is always very much appreciated. I have needed the warm fuzzies such kindness generates recently.

For now, I am not going far. I am not cutting ties. Back soon xx

Book Review: Killing Hapless Ally

haplessally

Killing Hapless Ally, by Anna Vaught, is a fictional memoir exploring mental illness and how the protagonist, Alison, learns to cope with her life through the creation of an alter ego and a host of imaginary friends. It is brutally frank, painful in places, but also darkly funny. Despite the suicide attempts and self harm, Alison is trying to find a way to survive in a world that she believes perceives her as a nuisance and a misfit.

As a child Alison always felt rejected. Her mother, Maria, told her she had not been wanted, that she should have been left at the hospital in a bucket. If she had to have a daughter Maria wished her to be a graceful, slender and beautiful little girl. Alison was plump, clumsy and struggled to stay clean. Her middle class parents were well regarded by their local community. All treated Alison with contempt.

Hapless Ally was the personality Alison thought would be more acceptable to her family and peers, an alter ego created as a shield against the verbal and physical onslaughts she endured. As well as hiding behind Ally in public, Alison developed obsessive routines and a shocking vocabulary. Only in private could she be her true self, confiding in a series of invented friends drawn from music and books.

The story explores snapshots of Alison’s life from as far back as she can remember – visits to relatives; attempts at ballet, music lessons and brownies; school and then university; caravan holidays with her parents. All are seen through the eyes of a deeply unhappy girl desperate to find acceptance.

As an adult Alison comes to realise that she is living her life with the soundtrack of her mother’s scathing criticism always in her head. She seeks help, but fears that she will not be able to cope without the strategies she has relied on for decades. She marries and has children, but then suffers a severe mental breakdown. Hapless Ally is conspiring with her dead mother and an exorcism is required.

The writing is intense, sometimes rambling, always coherent. The disjointedness can make for challenging reading but is effective at conveying the fragmentation of memory, especially from childhood, the overlap of sensation with events. It is fascinating and somewhat disturbing to look at adult behaviour through young Alison’s eyes, to see what a child absorbs and the impact of circumstance.

The story has been drawn from the author’s own experience of mental health issues. The authenticity this brings makes it a somewhat disquieting read. Although not an easy subject to explore mental illness deserves wider discussion. This book does not attempt to offer easy answers, but it generates important questions.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press.

Book Review: Mad Girl

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Mad Girl, by Bryony Gordon, is a darkly humourous account of living with mental illness. Since she was a child the author has suffered periods of debilitating OCD and clinical depression. As a young adult she developed eating disorders. She turned to alcohol and cocaine in an attempt to cope with her demons. Now she has decided to talk openly about these issues. Her aim is to out the prevalence of mental illness, to challenge the stigma society attaches to maladies that are ‘all in the head’, and to build understanding of the blight misconceptions can cause.

Bryony is the first to admit that she had a privileged upbringing. Privately educated and from a stable, supportive, middle class family she nevertheless developed anxieties at a young age. She recalls at age twelve fearing she may have AIDS despite never having indulged in risky activities. In an attempt to save her family from infection she washed her hands so frequently they cracked and avoided touching her parents and siblings. And then as suddenly as her acute fears had arrived they passed, until returning with a vengeance, in new and damaging forms, when she was in her late teens.

As Bryony recounts the hedonism of her twenties, how she acquired her dream job in journalism and travelled the world on glamourous assignments, she shares the self esteem problems that resulted in abusive relationships and her self-abusing lifestyle. None of this is to court sympathy but rather to demonstrate how adept people are at hiding what they do not wish others to see. She dreamed up happy scenarios, shared only the edited highlights of her life, and was reluctant to admit all was not as it seemed, even to herself.

Bryony lived what looked to be a normal and successful life, joking about many of her wilder exploits and using them as fodder for her writing career. Now what she wishes to do, in talking openly about what was actually going on during this time, is to demonstrate that mental illness is not shameful. She wishes to engender a wider acceptance that sufferers are not somehow to blame.

It is believed that one in four people experience mental health problems yet still the default is not to admit to such suffering. The cause is unknown, there is as yet no cure, and treatments are limited. This is before the woeful underfunding of mental health provision within the NHS is taken into account. Bryony eventually found help through CBT but only because she had the resources to fund it.

The raw honesty and self deprecating humour with which this account is written makes it a touching, sometimes shocking, yet continually entertaining read. The misery described is never gratuitous. As a social anxiety sufferer I found it uplifting. My hope is that those who do not have to endure such afflictions may gain a better understanding from this highly readable account. Those who do suffer may take comfort in the fact that they are not alone. They too are one of ‘The We’, and we are to be found everywhere.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Beside Myself

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Beside Myself, by Ann Morgan, is a powerful exploration of family, identity and mental health. It examines a fractured family whose matriarch believes individuals should take responsibility for their problems; that they should be contained, hidden from the outside world; that to make a fuss is worse than whatever the cause may have been.

Ellie and Helen are twins, as alike as two peas in a pod. Helen is the leader, the good girl who has to look out for her stupider sister. Sometimes this means giving her a lesson, inflicting cruelties which Helen enjoys. One day she decides that they will play a game. Helen will pretend to be Ellie and Ellie is to pretend to be Helen. They swap the clothes and hairstyles that their mother gives them that people may tell them apart. Except the day they choose to play the game is the day that Mother moves her new man into their home. Everyone is fooled by the girls’ deceit, and then Ellie refuses to swap back.

This is Helen’s story, the twin who is now known as Ellie. Alternate chapters deal with her childhood and adulthood, the timelines converging as her tale is told. When we first meet her as an adult it is clear that her life is a mess. She is hungover, living in poverty, estranged from her family. When she hears that her sister is in a coma following a car accident she doesn’t wish to become involved. Her sister’s husband will not accept this.

From the first page I was hooked. The premise is intriguing but it is the development that really impressed. There is no filler. Every chapter offers up yet another reveal, another punch in the gut. Ellie is constantly reaching out to those around her and finding emptiness. It is an aloneness that hurts in its realism.

As adults it is too easy to look at a troubled child and believe that, with the right support, they could be mended. This story demonstrates that much of that support is misplaced. A child struggles to speak the language of adults who will always consider that they know best. Like many youngsters, Ellie tells stories as she grasps for attention. Her attempts to explain the truth then flounder, the words she struggles to find treated with contempt.

Ellie is labelled as backward and troublesome. Her hopes of fresh starts are blown away by the reports that go ahead of her, passed between the adults charged with her care. As realisation dawns that she has no power to change her situation she finds a way to cope by ceasing to care. With nothing now to lose, rules and conventions may be ignored.

I felt anger and sadness as Ellie’s story unfolded. I was awed at the author’s accomplishment in the telling. Difficult issues of nature, nurture, how adults treat children and society judges; are woven into a compelling story of relationships, and the blame apportioned when outcomes clash with ideals.

The denouement provides explanations for many of the problems Ellie faced. There are no easy answers but it is a satisfying end to the tale.

This is a remarkable work of literature that I have no hesitation in recommending. It will be amongst my best reads of the year.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bloomsbury Circus.